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Unsolicited blended learning advice

Posted on: April 16, 2021

In December 2020, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced in a press release that it would build on the home-based learning experience — made mandatory due to our COVID-19 lockdown — by “making Blended Learning a key feature of the schooling experience”. 

The MOE defined blended learning (point 4 of the press release) as “a mix of home-based and in-school activities, and leverage both online and offline approaches to learning”. This definition is limited to modality: Outside and inside school, offline and online.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I have critiqued this approach before because it limits the scope of blending to just one aspect. As my thoughts were scattered over several reflections, I summarise some key ideas in point form. Blended learning: 

  1. requires a clear and shared meaning, otherwise some people will just do the same old thing differently
  2. focuses on the learner and learning, not the teacher and teaching, i.e., do not confuse blended teaching with blended learning
  3. can be about skilfully mixing different strategies, content, contexts, timeframes, tools, evaluations, etc.
  4. is about providing learners with seamless experiences, i.e., the differences above are not obvious to the learner (like a smoothie)
  5. is about the long tail, not the short game

The rollout of the exact nature of blended learning is left to schools and this is an excellent strategy. The annex to the press release states that the frequency of such blended learning is once a fortnight.

The MOE has mandated that secondary-and-above students experience this by Term 3 of 2021. This means that school personnel have started their planning. So I offer some unsolicited advice on how to approach the design of blended learning.

Address the low bar of continuity 
The blended learning initiatives might absorb the schools’ e-learning days or stand alone from them. Either way, it cannot run away from the fact that we need to keep preparing for the next lockdown, be that due to another pandemic or something short of an apocalypse. 

The key question to answer is: How do we continue with near business-as-usual in terms of curricula and schemes of work without resorting to make up sessions when everyone returns to school?

Address the meaningful bar of context 
The unstated beauty of the mandate is that each school needs to devise its own plan. This means that each school can take into account its overall profile of its students. 

This means that a school with students from lower-income groups who have just received devices and dongles can have a programme that is different from one that competes with the best on the world stage. This should be the case.

The key design question is: What is best for my learners over this period of time?

Design beyond modality and synchronicity 
The idea that blended learning is limited only to mixing the “traditional” with the “technological” is not only passé, it is harmful. It limits what teachers can design for their students.

In my third summary point on blended learning, I mentioned several things that can be seamlessly blended. For example, teachers from different academic departments could co-design a common project for students that addresses different content areas and standards.

Such cross or inter-disciplinary content design not only helps students see how different subjects work together, it also prevents teachers from designing in isolation. The latter design results in multiple tasks that all seem urgent to students. This results in stress and resentment of “blended learning” days.

The guiding design question might be: What else can be blended to create a learning smoothie?

Start simple
One principle I share with teachers and graduate students alike is this: Start simple because things will get complicated.

Do not be over-ambitious with the design of learning tasks. What seems easy and obvious to you as a teacher is not so to a student. Practice empathetic design.

One question to keep asking during planning: How can this be further simplified without compromising on quality or challenge? 

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

Again, this is unsolicited advice and limited only to overall approaches, not specific strategies. I have called on my previous experience of providing consultations with teacher educators and university faculty on all manner of blended designs. You can take it or leave it.

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